In October 2010 the Equality Act replaced a plethora of existing anti-discrimination laws. Its main aim was to simplify and strengthen equality legislation by removing inconsistencies and making it easier for people to understand and comply with.
The Act contains duties for the private, public and voluntary sectors across a range of activities including employment, housing, procurement, service delivery etc and protects individuals from discrimination on the grounds of the following characteristics: race, gender, disability, age, religion and belief, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity and marriage and civil partnership. Whether at work as an employee or in using a service, the simple message of the Equality Act is that everyone has the right to be treated fairly.
Those in the public sector are expected to go much further. They need to take proactive steps to advance equality of opportunity by for example considering the potentially negative impact of the introduction of new policies and practices, such as a new complaints handling procedure, on the protected characteristics listed above. They also need to foster good relations between different groups and to have ‘due regard’ to the need to eliminate unlawful discrimination and harassment.
For those working in the public sector, including those working in complaints handling, the implications of the Equality Act are many. As a consultant for Righttrack Consultancy, I have been supporting the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman to look at the issue from four different perspectives.
The first was to consider how and when staff should be making reasonable adjustments for disabled complainants, Through workshops and guidance for those on the front-line, we have explored what is disability, what is reasonable and at what point could meeting requests for adjustments begin to compromise SPSO’s need to be impartial.
The second area of focus was to work out how best the SPSO and the bodies in its jurisdiction should assess the potential impact of their policies and practices on equality, in line with a part of the Act known as The Specific Duties. An Equality Impact Assessment (EIA) model has been developed at the SPSO which focuses on simple systems but complex thinking. By working this way the EIAs help to advance equality by providing a way of reviewing policies and practices through an equality lens.
The third, which is still ongoing, is to advise the SPSO on how well the Act is being applied by public sector bodies on a case-by-case basis. This work has clearly demonstrated already that in some areas, such as housing, further statutory guidance on the Equality Act would be of great benefit to those trying to translate it into practice.
We are now turning our attention to the work of the Complaints Standard Authority (CSA) and how those responsible for ensuring that complaint handling procedures are fit-for-purpose can begin to ‘mainstream’ equality i.e. build in fair and equal treatment from the start. The biggest challenge will be to ensure that, in seeking to be impartial and fair, complaint handlers don’t inadvertently enforce practices in a rigid way that could become a barrier for some e.g. by setting strict timescales or using online only services. A great deal of skill and judgment will be needed by those in this specialist field, to balance accessibility and reasonable adjustment with consistency and standardisation, in line with the Model CHPs published by the CSA on the back of the recommendations of the Sinclair and Crerar Reports (2007).
We would love to hear from anyone working in the public sector who has already begun to work on equality and complaints handling, anyone who has developed good practice policies and procedures and even better anyone who is struggling with a particular area of the Equality Act. In that way the CSA can play its part in making sure that in Scotland not only is complaints handling fit-for-purpose but that it is also fair and equal.
You can find out more about the work that Righttrack do on equality and diversity at http://www.righttrackconsultancy.co.uk/training/equality-diversity-train...